The similarities between the 1975 and 2016 EU referendums are more striking than the differences
Paul Johnson: Campaigned to leave the EEC in 1975, one of the few public intellectuals to do so
Michael Gove was not the first man to call on the public to ignore the experts during a European referendum. During the United Kingdom’s previous vote on our continued participation in European political integration in 1975, the historian Paul Johnson, who was one of the very few public intellectuals to support leaving the European Economic Community, asked in the Sunday Times if readers could name a single major decision since the war on which “the establishment consensus” had been vindicated. The experts had been wrong on appeasement in the 1930s and they were now wrong on the EEC, he wrote.
Yes to Europe! by Robert Saunders, a historian at Queen Mary University of London, offers a lively and at times entertaining account, at least by the general standards of academic writing, of the 1975 referendum campaign. He shows that there are a surprising number of similarities between that campaign and the 2016 referendum.
The result was, of course, very different: in 1975 just over 67 per cent voted to remain part of the European project. And the two sides were much more mismatched back then. In 1975 the In side vastly outspent the Outers, 20 to one by some estimates. Even just taking the official campaigns (and there were many other pro-EEC groups), the Britain in Europe (BIE) campaign declared spending of £1,481,583 (roughly £11.2 million in today’s money) while the National Referendum Campaign (NRC), the Out side, spent £136,734 (just over £1 million today), little more than half of what BIE spent on printing alone. Apart from its government grant of £125,000, the NRC managed to raise only £11,734, almost half of which came from the sale of literature. In 2016, while Remain did have the advantage of having the government machine on its side, the two official campaigns and the myriad ancillary and rival groups on both sides managed to raise and spend money on a fairly equal, and prodigious, basis. Unlike in 2016, the press was almost uniformly in support of continued membership 43 years ago. The only titles which supported leaving back then were the Communist Party’s Morning Star and the Spectator. Both titles maintained their stance in the 2016 referendum.
Some of the issues have also moved on. Immigration was hardly raised in the earlier referendum. It was a live issue in the mid-1970s — the heyday of the National Front — but the concerns were all about Commonwealth immigration, not migrants from the affluent Western European club the EEC then was. On the other hand, the price of food was a central debating point in 1975, but, despite the fact that a strong case can be made that EU membership dramatically forces up food prices in the UK today, it was hardly raised in 2016. A year or so before the second referendum campaign started, some of those later running Vote Leave thought that food prices would take centre stage and be just the issue to win over swing voters. In the end, £350 million for the NHS played the role that the cost of food might have done.
The similarities between 1975 and 2016 are, however, more striking than the differences. The central issue on both occasions was sovereignty and to what extent the UK should be allowed to govern itself. In 1975 it was the issue which animated the two most prominent “Out” politicians, the renegade Tory Enoch Powell and Labour’s Tony Benn. The difference was that by 2016 what European integration meant for British self-rule had become so much more apparent.
Both referendums were called not out of any deeply-held belief in sovereignty but for reasons of party management. Harold Wilson led a deeply-divided Labour Party in the run-up to the 1974 election and sought to paper over the cracks by promising renegotiation of Britain’s EEC membership terms, followed by a referendum. David Cameron was facing the same situation with his own party when he made his Bloomberg speech in January 2013. His solution was too exact a copy of Wilson’s approach not to have been a deliberate rip-off of the earlier Prime Minister’s success. The outcome was very different: Wilson killed serious debate about continued British membership for at least 30 years, Cameron simply killed British membership.
There are also less obvious echoes between the two referendums. Just as in 2016, there was massive infighting within the Leave camp in 1975. Oddly, since with the exception of Powell nearly all the prominent political figures calling for an Out vote were Labour, much of the organising spirit behind the anti-EEC campaigns came from renegade Conservatives and maverick Liberals. For example, the strident Keep Britain Out, later Get Britain Out, was founded by Oliver Smedley, a Liberal who had helped to found the free-market Institute of Economic Affairs and was one of the innovators behind pirate radio, setting up the UK’s first offshore station, Radio Atlanta. When a rival tried to board and take over his station, Smedley shot and killed him. Pleading self-defence, he was acquitted of manslaughter in 1966. It is perhaps not surprising that Smedley could not get on with his fellow anti-Marketeers and played something of the role fellow maverick businessman Arron Banks did in 2016. In both campaigns the pro-European side was much more united.
Those parties supporting the break-up of the UK also had a similar strategy in both campaigns, but it involved backing the opposite camp. Both Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland and the Scottish National Party campaigned for an Out vote in 1975. They expected that England would vote to remain in the EEC while Northern Ireland and Scotland might vote to leave, and hoped that this divergence would prove a pivot from which to split up the Union. In the event, both Scotland and Northern Ireland, in the latter case narrowly, voted Yes to remaining in the EEC, and the nationalists’ strategy failed. In 2016 Sinn Fein and the SNP were both ardent Remainers, but they hoped — indeed are still hoping — that the different votes in the separate parts of the UK might lead to a break-up of the Union. The ultimate goal of the nationalist parties never changes.
There is not only much to learn from Saunders’s book about a fascinating historical episode: it also illuminates the issues we face today. His conclusion is that, far from the usual narrative that a Yes to Europe vote was inevitable in 1975, the success of the European integrationist cause was due to the brilliance of Harold Wilson as a politician — a quality that was sorely lacking in David Cameron.